I really loved these episodes, although in the end my approach to the story was as different from either of yours as yours were from each other: which is to say, different in details, but perhaps similar on the broad outline.
First things first: obviously this is a story about the corporate world, about living this sort of life, just as Wolfe says in his afterwards. "Kafkaesque", which Glenn used, is right, not only because of bureaucracy-as-nightmare aspects, but also because it has humor mixed in with the nightmare, as well as a big dose of surrealism. So about the themes, the phenomenology (as Brendan (I think it was?) put it)— all that, I completely agree.
Where I disagree, I think, is in the puzzles/what's really happening aspect.
To take the puzzles first. I think this is a Wolfe story that, more than any he ever wrote, is not about the puzzles. This is a story about the themes. If you try and solve the puzzles — and I think you fell into this trap a bit, with the 12 afterlives from the red book (I'll get to my reading of that in a minute) or pairing up the 9 answers in the final line with the types of explainers (an approach that Glenn torpedoed right before you did it by pointing out the reversed order: I would argue that that might well be Wolfe specifically eliminating the sort of reading you did, by showing the order was not stable & couldn't be matched!) — then you miss the point. This is about the themes, the experience, the social critique. It's a very funny story in many places. And it's a nightmare, and one that, as you point out, Wolfe lives. That's what the story means.
Ok. But what's really happening?
I will admit I came in with a pretty firm interpretation (which I heard before, after I read it for the first time), and heard nothing, nor saw anything in my reread of the story, to change my mind; but perhaps I was overly closed minded. Still, here is the reading, which is not mine, but from my friend Eric Van, who I believe used to be on the Wolfe forums sometimes back in the day.
The reading is that the story is literally and purposefully ambiguous.
There are three options — the three options listed at the end by the explainer:
“You may have been oppressed by demons,” the small man said. “Or revived by unseen aliens who, landing on the Earth eons after the death of the last man, have sought to re-create the life of the twentieth century. Or it may be that there is a small pressure, exerted by a tumor in your brain.”
Of course there are others, as he said. But the point is the story fits with all of them. Which means that the story can be read fully as fantasy, SF or mainstream, depending on what you pick; the story is, again, undecided and undecidable between the three.
One of the reasons I like this reading is that it forces you back into the themes. Forlesen is having this experience, one which captures (in a clearer air, as GW says) the experience of many people in the working world. Whether it is caused by demons or aliens or tumors isn't the point: the point is the nightmarish, hilarious, hellish experience that mirrors what so many of us go through.
(Wolfe expresses the sympathy he so obviously feels—in the story from the inside here, I think, already from the outside: this was written before he became a full-time professional writer, but I get the impression he liked the job editing Plant Management—in The Castle of the Otter, where he says "Jack Woodford notes that what most people who say they want to write really want is to quit work... I have more than a little sympathy for the people who feel that way—an appalling number of jobs absolutely stink; I am fortunate in that I have fallen into one of the few good ones.")
Most of the puzzles, I think, are explicable in purely thematic terms. Why is the cop a robot? Because the cops are part of the machine that makes this society run. Why do all the EFs look alike? Because they're all the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. Why do mirrors not work? Because this is a society that doesn't let us see ourselves, any more than it lets us be creative or curious. Why does Forlesen remember nothing but his name? Because our ignorance of the past, our lack of ability to remember, is what got us here — as a society, and as individuals (we forget who we are). Why do they get Forlesen's name wrong? It's pure satire of a technological society. It's always about the themes. (You covered a lot of this ground in the show.)
What's up with Abraham Beale? He is how we got here, in mythical form: we came from the farm, did lots of things, but came to the city—in part because society and government forced us (took our farms)— and now are adrift. He's not a symbol of Christ, but a mythic version of the American past.
So what's up with the religious book and the twelve afterlives? I think the book represents all religion: in the corporate world of the 70s & before, it is there, but it is hard to find: it's buried under the technical manuals of the society, and really, you don't have time to read it, you need to read the manuals & get to work! And as such, it outlines what could be seen as a survey of all the different sorts of things that various faiths or philosophies have taught happen to people after they die: they are reincarnated, they live the same lives again, nothing ("sleep"), they become ghosts, etc. This also explains why heaven (garden) and hell (torment) are a single option: because they tend to go together in (e.g.) Christian belief. These are twelve views of the afterlife; but who has time for those?
What's up with the types of explainers? They are the types of people that people look to for meaning. Actors are there because some people really would go to Tom Cruise (God help us).
And what do the answers at the end mean?
They mean exactly what they sound like. Who knows if this has meaning. Yes, no, and maybe. Any puzzle interpretation lessens them, in my view. I often wonder if any type of suffering I, or others, endure means anything; and I often think that the only answer there is is "No… Yes. No. Yes. Yes. No. Yes. Yes. Maybe."
Again, I loved the episodes, and you did a really great job of touring the themes — which, as I said, and as you both said, is what matters. For what it's worth, this is what I think we know about what "happens": we explicitly and deliberately can't say.
I have some other thoughts on specific things you said, more minor details of the story, but for now I'll stop here. That's the big picture, as I see it.
God I love this story. One of Wolfe's very, very best, in my view.